11th and Washington

11th and Washington: July 2011

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Thanks, Carlos

Suspended animation

It was a pleasure watching you. Looking forward to another postseason tear.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

What a merry band of of marauders, they

It's Friday night in Pittsburgh and PNC Park is the place to be.

"Standing room only," says a fan at a ticket window, turning to his companions. They decide to take them, because they want to be a part of it.

A part of what? Well, nobody knows for sure, not just yet. But there is something developing here at the confluence of the Three Rivers. A rabid fanbase in the Steel City -- one that has fervently celebrated two Super Bowl victories and a Stanley Cup title in the past five and a half years -- is ready for some summertime sports success, and just being a few games above .500 for a team that hasn't sniffed a winning record in nearly two decades is close enough.

The Pirates are becoming a hit in Pittsburgh, while the rest of the country marvels -- at best -- and scoffs, waiting for the inevitable slide that will send them back down below decks to the sub-.500 quarters they've inhabited ever since Sid Bream made like Cool Papa Bell and slid home ahead of the throw from a five-tool left fielder in his prime named Bonds. But this is an enjoyable group of Buccos, filled more with youth and potential than the gray hairs and experience that have dominated Pirates rosters in recent years. Previous groups donning the black and gold have fallen somewhere between an Oceanic airbus full of castaways and
merely enough to fill the S.S. Minnow; this collection of Pirates won't be pushed around the NL Central.

Standing-room only in sports today is close enough to call it a sellout, so that's what Friday night at PNC Park was. Baseball's most beautiful ballpark was full, fuller than I've ever seen it in my five games there. Fans lined the spiral ramp in the left-field corner and stood along the concourse behind each section on the main level. Concession lines were long, though bathroom lines weren't -- either I picked the right times to go, or this town knows how to balance hydration and inebriation.

Clemente and his bridgeWillie StargellAs usual, Federal St. to the east of the ballpark was closed as fans strolled across the Roberto Clemente Bridge from downtown. Duquesne Light, the company sponsoring the night's Jose Tabata T-Shirt giveaway -- had a big picnic area set up in the middle of the road as fans milled about and music filled the air. Sidewalk seating at the restaurants was packed. We dodged our way through the crowd to the nearby statues to gaze upon the largess of Willie Stargell's rear end and Clemente's shiny fingers, the result of so many fans reaching up to hold his hand.

Honus guarding the gatesAfter visiting Honus Wagner at the main entrance behind home plate, we retraced our steps to the left-field corner to pick up our tickets: Section 116, Row X. Sure, it's a few rows up, but it was dead-center behind home plate -- for $27. You don't get that kind of value in New York, and you certainly don't get the view. Casey and I dove into our half-bucket of Quaker Steak and Lube wings while her mom and friend went off to find other eats. By the time we settled into our seats, a humid, rainy afternoon had dried up and cooled off. We sat comfortably in our packed section as the game began James McDonald hit the mid-90s on the radar gun (who knew?) and we marveled at the fact that the pitch display at PNC also shows the vertical and horizontal movement of each pitch. The information we can get these days ...

The expected pockets of Cubs fans revealed themselves in the first inning, when Aramis Ramirez hit his 15th home run of the season to right-center field. The Pirates took the lead in the third when Neil Walker beat out an infield hit with two outs, scoring Alex Presley from third base and, impressively, Chase d'Arnaud from second. Off of Walker's bat, it looked like a clean single to center, but Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney ran it down and made an off-balance throw to first, nearly getting the out to end the inning without any runs scoring.

Chicago regained the lead with two in the sixth on Alfonso Soriano's double, only to have the Bucs tie it up again in the bottom half when Andrew McCutchen -- named to the NL All-Star team the next day -- homered over the Heinz bottle on the center-field wall. The Cubs scratched out another run in the eighth for a 4-3 lead ... and then it became a lot of fun. A walk, a flyout and a groundout left Walker on first base with two outs and Lyle Overbay coming to the plate to face Sean Marshall in a lefty-on-lefty matchup. Overbay didn't wait, lining a first-pitch fastball to left field for a single, moving Walker to second. Cubs manager Mike Quade called on his closer, Carlos Marmol, to get the final four outs.

He didn't get one. Well, he did, but by then, it was too late. Josh Harrison lined Marmol's first pitch into center field for an RBI single to tie the game. Up stepped rookie catcher Michael McKenry, who quickly fell behind, 0-2, on two fastballs, one called and the second fouled back. Four straight sliders resulted in four foul balls before another 93-mph four-seam fastball, also fouled off -- the sixth in a row. Marmol came back with another slider and McKenry connected for his first Major League home run, a go-ahead three-run shot to left field.

At that moment, Casey and I were walking back into the ballpark after stepping out to take pictures of the Bill Mazeroski statue just outside the right-field gate. As we crossed the Riverwalk to join her mom and Al behind the fence peeking out over the scoreboard in right field, the crowd erupted into the roar that accompanies a no-doubt-about-it home run. McKenry is the kind of guy Pittsburghers love, a third-string catcher (maybe lower) now getting frequent at-bats because of so many injuries to Buccos backstops. A working-class guy for a working-class city. And nerves of steel, apparently.

Xavier Paul grounded out on the next pitch from Marmol to end the inning, sending the game to the top of the ninth. We stayed in that spot above the right-field scoreboard -- embedded inside the Clemente Wall -- for the final three outs. With the crowd already amped coming off the home run from moments ago, this starts playing on the video board:

One down in the ninth
The fans were in a frenzy. Loud only got louder. Ramirez -- he who gave the Cubs that early lead in the first -- struck out, and Paul, the right fielder, raised a finger to the sky. Carlos Pena, meant to be the Cubs' powerful offseason acquisition, bounced one back to Hanrahan for the second out. Paul raised two fingers above his head. Up next, with two outs and nobody on base, was Geovany Soto, the 2008 NL Rookie of the Year. Hanrahan's first four offerings went called strike, ball, foul, ball for a 2-2 count. The first three pitches were 98-mph fastballs, followed by an 86-mph slider. The fifth pitch, another slider, fooled Soto. Strike three, swinging, Bucs win. Raise the Jolly Roger!

We turned and walked out to the Riverwalk and exchanged high-fives with a few 20-something guys who had taken full advantage of beer sales up through the seventh inning. "First place!" one of them yelled, clearly not aware that the Brewers hadn't yet lost to the Reds (and wouldn't). The Pirates didn't make it to first place that night, but they just may before this season ends.

Later, after we'd walked back across the Clemente Bridge and along the river to our hotel near the Heinz History Center, I noticed that a Pirates fan had retweeted my photo from our seats behind the plate early in the game. I posted a brief reply and he (or she) came back with, "I wish I was there. You got to witness the best Bucs game in over a decade."

I can't speak to that myself, but I suppose Steel City baseball fans might know from misery. But it sure feels like something exciting is happening along the Allegheny River.

Heading home happy

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Monday, July 11, 2011

Weiland makes MLB debut for Red Sox

Kyle Weiland became the 78th former Fighting Irish player to reach the Major Leagues when he got the start for the Red Sox yesterday. Boston won the game, but Weiland wasn't part of the decision despite pitching into the fifth inning. The 24-year-old right-hander gave up six runs -- all in the second inning -- but that wasn't why he was pulled. After hitting Vladimir Guerrero in the fifth, Weiland was ejected -- just the third pitcher to be bounced from his first career start -- as some of the emotions from Friday carried over into the series finale.

"It is what it is, and it's a great experience," Weiland said after the game. "I got the first one under the belt. Obviously I would have liked for a few things to go different. I got a little ahead of myself, and things kind of snowballed on me in the second inning. But obviously having this lineup is a luxury."

Weiland's first pitch in a 1-2-3 first inning was a 93-mph ball to J.J. Hardy, who later grounded out on a 1-2 pitch. The next batter, Nick Markakis, became Weiland's first career strikeout, on a 94-mph four-seamer. Matt Wieters drew the first walk Weiland gave up, and then Derrek Lee recorded the first hit when he slugged a two-run homer to start the scoring in the six-run second.

It remains to be seen if Weiland will get another start coming out of the All-Star break, but with Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz still on the shelf with no timetable for their returns (and Lester isn't even eligible to return until next Friday, July 22), Weiland may very well get a chance to redeem himself.

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Sunday, July 10, 2011

He could throw that speedball by you

Photo is mine; funky effects with the help of Piknik

Yesterday's New York Times had a splendid article about the old friend -- that "speedball" pitcher -- who appears in the opening of Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days." It's exactly as it sounds -- Bruce was walking into a bar -- the Headliner in Neptune -- as the old teammate, Joe DePugh, was walking out. They recognized one another and headed inside to catch up over drinks. That the lyrics are so true to the story, that the old creed, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend," doesn't even apply; the legend is fact, no embellishment needed.

It's a great story dug up by Kevin Coyne, himself from Freehold at the same time as Springsteen -- and those connections and relationships are what allowed him to put the pieces together and talk to those who knew, particularly DePugh himself. I've always enjoyed Coyne's writing and ability to tell a story, but I'm a little biased -- he "embedded" himself in the student body at Notre Dame shortly before I went there, and the resulting book came out during my sophomore year. He's also written about black baseball in New Jersey in general and Atlantic City in particular, the still-in-limbo Bergen CliffHawks, veteran baseball reporter Ed Lucas, the lack of space for baseball in Jersey City and a brief essay on summer among his baseball -- and my favorite -- pieces. Add this one to the list.

I had a friend was a big baseball player
back in high school
He could throw that speedball by you
Make you look like a fool boy
Saw him the other night at this roadside bar
I was walking in, he was walking out
We went back inside sat down had a few drinks
but all he kept talking about was

Glory days well they'll pass you by
Glory days in the wink of a young girl's eye
Glory days, glory days

-- BruceSpringsteen.net

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Monday, July 04, 2011

Baseball on the Fourth

The show begins

July 4 is a big day for Yankee baseball. It was George Steinbrenner's birthday and that top hat logo was just made for the holiday. (I do love the way the Scranton-Wilkes Barre Yankees incorporated it into their uniforms. If you have to use the parent club's nickname, the least you can do is mix up the uniform.)

And of course, July 4, 1939, was Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day, which made me realize that the Yankees have been home on the Fourth a lot in recent years (before this year's trip to Cleveland, they were in the Bronx the previous four years). And then I wondered how they've done on Independence Day since Gehrig Day.

And so here it is: Beginning with the 1939 doubleheader, when they honored Gehrig between games, the Yankees are 52-42-1 when playing on July 4. That stretch includes 26 doubleheaders (the last of which came in 1973, a sweep in the Bronx by the Red Sox) and three idle days -- two when the Yankees were rained out (1978 in Boston and 1941 at home -- more on that one a little later in this post) and the 1981 strike year. At Yankee Stadia, the Bronx Bombers are 32-23; on the road, they're 20-19-1, the tie coming in the second game of a twin bill in 1950. The first game went into extra innings and the second was called because of darkness. That amounts to 55 July 4 games at home and 40 on the road, before this year. Sixteen of the doubleheaders (17, counting the 1941 rainout) were scheduled for Yankee Stadium; 10 (11 counting the Fenway washout) were on the road. So the Yankees have been home on July 4 more often than not.

New York has outscored its opponents 437-391 on Independence Day. Those opponents, and the records (with the Senators in their various forms represented every which way):

Senators/Twins, 25 games (Yankees are 15-9-1)
Senators (both Washington clubs), 21 games (13-7-1)
Red Sox, 19 games (8-11)
Indians, 12 games (7-5)
Orioles, 7 games (4-3)
Athletics, 7 games (3-4)
Tigers, 6 games (4-2)
Senators/Rangers, 6 games (4-2)
Twins, 6 games (3-3)
White Sox, 6 games (3-3)
Rangers, 4 games (3-1)
Blue Jays, 3 games (2-1)
Brewers, 2 games (2-0)
Mets, 1 game (0-1)
Royals, 1 game (0-1)

Now looking at just 1973-2010, the years Steinbrenner owned the club before his death last July 13, the Yankees went 21-16 on the owner's birthday (they were rained out on the Fourth in 1978 and the strike kept them off the field in '81; in '73, they lost a doubleheader to the Red Sox), playing 22 games at home and 15 on the road and outscoring opponents by a hair, 163-160.

The 1941 rainout was the Yankees' first July 4 following Gehrig's death a month earlier, on June 2. They were scheduled to host the Senators in a doubleheader, at which they would honor their former captain with a formal memorial. As The New York Times wrote, the loss of the games was a big blow:

At the Stadium a crowd of 70,000 had been expected to see the Bronx Bombers battle the Senators in addition to attending the Lou Gehrig memorial ceremonies. ... 
Rough estimates placed the loss of yesterday's washouts as close to $125,000 for the local clubs.

A PDF of the full article is here.

All of this came about as I was perusing various schedules to see if there was an Independence Day matinee I could take in before working tonight. July 4 just calls for a ballgame under the sun, followed by an evening barbecue in the backyard or taking a lawn chair or blanket down to the local park for the fireworks display. And while MLB has a full slate of 15 games today -- a pleasant sight, considering that Mondays are often off-days for some clubs -- seven (so, nearly half) have the first pitches scheduled for the afternoon. The rest are nighttime affairs -- including Yankees at Indians (sold out, in part because of a Bob Feller celebration and statuette giveaway) and Mets at Dodgers. Of those eight night games, only the Cardinals -- who have first pitch scheduled for 5:15 p.m. local time -- do not have postgame fireworks. The Cards' earlier start time must be designed to allow for fans to stay until the end of the ballgame, then catch the 9:15 fireworks at Fair St. Louis under the Gateway Arch. That sounds like a sweet deal to me.

As for the local minor league clubs at home today, all will play tonight. The Lakewood BlueClaws, Staten Island Yankees (who are hosting the Brooklyn Cyclones) and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees (hosting the Lehigh Valley IronPigs) will all set off fireworks after their ballgames. And who can blame them? Fireworks shows consistently draw huge crowds to minor league parks, no matter the date.

Obviously, combining an evening at the ballpark with a postgame fireworks show brings the two together. But I personally prefer a town park or waterfront setting for my ooohing and aaahing. To me, it's not quite the same watching from a fixed seat in Section 21 instead of amid the crowd on a park lawn or along the wharf.

<a href='http://video.msn.com?vid=0fa96021-6adc-46e0-aa8f-127121060bbc&mkt=en-us&src=FLPl:embed::uuids' target='_new' title='Gehrig&#39;s farewell' >Video: Gehrig&#39;s farewell</a>

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